Though it might seem counterintuitive, the neighborhood restaurant is quite often just as difficult a puzzle to assemble as an ambitious destination hot spot. Oftentimes there may be less money involved, and a more focused audience. But therein lies the rub. If the pieces don't fit exactly with the tastes of a small pool of local customers, you're pretty much doomed.
In L.A., that puzzle becomes even more puzzling. For example, we're not a walking city; almost all restaurants have to reach past foot traffic and become a semi-destination. And some of the city's best restaurants are arguably just very good neighborhood joints. Alimento in Silver Lake comes to mind, as does Union in Pasadena.
Eagle Rock has yet to get on board the freight train of restaurant openings that has rolled through Silver Lake and Pasadena and nearby Highland Park. While there are a couple of reasons for this, the most endearing fact is that Eagle Rock is still fairly loyal to its old-school neighborhood spots. Highland Park can keep its bespoke cocktails and multitudes of small plates; in Eagle Rock there is no place more jumping on a Friday night than Colombo's Italian Steakhouse & Jazz Club, which has been open since 1954. The wait for a table at Casa Bianca Pizza Pie is still over an hour on busy nights. These places, as well as the newish restaurants that have thrived in Eagle Rock (Cacao Mexicatessen, Oinkster, Little Beast) appeal especially to families. And despite the proximity to Occidental College, this is primarily a family neighborhood. That's true of the longtime residents, and it's true of the newer folks moving in, looking for more space to push strollers along Eagle Rock's wide, palm-lined streets.
Directly across the street from Casa Bianca is a new restaurant that is more in the mold of those Highland Park and Silver Lake spots. Red Herring opened in August, and it appears to be trying to walk a somewhat precarious tightrope. Is it a neighborhood spot? A destination? A family restaurant? A venue for sophisticated, high-cost special occasions? It might be trying to be all of these things.
The two-story restaurant looks and feels much more appropriate for a date night than as a place to take your passel of toddlers. The downstairs area features sleek midcentury-style design and a welcoming bar. The upstairs room's bold floral wallpaper, and windows overlooking Casa Bianca's vintage signage across the street, make for an atmosphere that's decidedly grown-up. Even so, Red Herring offers a kids menu; to not do so might seem like a stubborn rejection of the reality of the neighborhood.
The restaurant is the project of a husband-and-wife team, Dave and Alexis Woodall. Alexis Woodall is a TV producer, and Dave Woodall is a chef who's worked at Mélisse in Santa Monica and Blair's in Silver Lake. Those are two restaurants with very different styles and purposes, on opposite ends of the destination-versus-neighborhood spectrum. But they share a classicism, a penchant for doing things the old-school way, and Woodall brings that same penchant to Red Herring. This is a New American restaurant as they used to be 10 or 15 years ago before restaurants such as Animal and Father's Office came along and turned everything upside down.
That is to say, there are crabcakes on the menu. They're big and made with lump blue crab and served with basil aioli, and they're kind of surprisingly good, better, perhaps, than they need to be. That's true for a lot of the food here — many items are made with the kind of care and skill you don't normally find at a neighborhood restaurant. At the same time, no one is likely to drive across town for crabcakes, or the very nicely cooked pork chop Red Herring serves, even if that pork chop does have perfectly criss-crossed grill marks.
The chicken liver pâté is gloriously smooth and rich, and the house-made sausage shows a mastery of sausage making that's rare in New American kitchens. Local yellowtail comes over a silken carrot ginger puree and is cooked exactly right. The mushroom risotto is so jam-packed with crimini, shiitake, oyster, chanterelle and matsutake mushrooms that it's barely a risotto at all. There's hardly enough rice to cling together, but I'm not complaining because the jumble of mushrooms tastes fantastic.
But there's something that's not quite clicking at Red Herring, something that's keeping the restaurant from being reliably busy. I think there are a few reasons for that.
The first is that they should take the advice of the first maître d' to ever train me, and the first rule he taught me on my first day as a hostess: Put customers in the window seats. If a place looks bustling from outside, it will make people want to come in. Red Herring's main dining room is upstairs, and it's a lovely place to sit, but the fact that the host puts all the guests upstairs means you're often walking into what looks like an empty restaurant. Whether you rely on foot traffic or not, it's not a great look.
Aside from that, it's the tricky neighborhood-restaurant equation with which Red Herring seems to be struggling. It's not anywhere near cheap enough to make for an easy Tuesday-night dinner. The crabcakes appetizer is $18, the pork chop is $32. There are reasons for that expense. The ingredients are high quality, and there are touches that give the place an extra serving of glamour, such as beautiful vintage-style glassware and a lovely drinks list. But it's not quite special enough to qualify as thrilling on a citywide level. So it presents a few conundrums: The food is better than it needs to be but it also costs a lot; it isn't quite family-friendly enough but it isn't quite exciting enough either. It makes me understand all the impossible things we demand of our neighborhood restaurants.
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When we ate our first meal at Red Herring, my husband kept asking, "Who is this for?"
"It's for you," I told him. "It's grown-up food with a little bit of glamour that's close enough to the house that we don't need to spend a fortune on babysitting."
He wasn't quite convinced, despite the fact that he kept exclaiming about the quality of the food. If Red Herring were a tiny bit cheaper (portion sizes would have to shrink; I don't think anyone would mind), and a tiny bit more buzzy-feeling (seat the people in the window!) it might go a long way toward being less confusing to its intended audience. I do hope that happens — it would be a shame for this nice food and this lovely room to go to waste.
RED HERRING | Two stars | 1661 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock | (323) 739-0004 | redherringla.com | Tue.-Sat., 5-10 p.m.; Sun., 5-9 p.m.; brunch: Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. | Entrees, $21-$32 | Beer and wine | Street parking